Nutrition for Sports Performance

Aug 03, 2020

By: Sydney Savage-Jezek, DPT

Keto, Whole30, low carb high protein, weight watchers, Atkins, gluten-free. Each of these buzzwords is used to describe a diet or fad. But what are we supposed to eat and drink as athletes? There are different nutritional needs based on the sport or athletic event in which you participate and each person will have his or her own specific needs. However, here are some basics to get you started. It’s important to note that a physical therapist is not a registered dietician or nutritionist so if you have more specific questions, they should be directed to the appropriate medical professional. 

Macronutrients are the proteins, carbohydrates, and fats found within the various foods we eat. These nutrients are important for general health, growth, development, and the building and repairing of muscle tissue. Macronutrients also provide the energy necessary to train and compete in all sports and recreational activities.

Protein is the primary structural and functional component of every cell in the human body. That makes this macronutrient extremely important as it’s used for growth, development, and repair of the cells. A variety of sources can provide the body with the protein that it needs to function including both animal (meat, eggs, dairy) and plant (soy, tofu, lentils) sources. As an adult who regularly exercises, anywhere from 0.8-1.0 grams (g) of protein per kilogram (kg) of body weight should be sufficient to meet the daily needs of the body to grow and repair its cells. So for example, a person who weighs 150 pounds would need an intake of about 68 grams of protein daily. Athletes, whether aerobic or strength-based, will need to consume a high amount of protein to meet these same needs. 

Carbohydrates are a primary source of energy for the body, providing 4 kcal/g of energy, and are not well stored in the body. There are two types of carbohydrates – simple carbs and complex carbs. Simple carbs are sugars, and while found naturally in some places, like milk, are more often added to our foods. You want to avoid the simple carbs that are abundant in soda, baked goods, and juice from concentrate. Complex carbs are the better type and these can be found in foods such as whole-grain bread, nuts, vegetables, beans, and rice. Endurance athletes, such as runners, cyclists, and triathletes, trying to improve performance should aim for 8-10 g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight. Athletes such as weight lifters and sprinters should aim for approximately 5-6 g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight. The complex carbohydrates should make up a majority of the carbohydrates consumed in a day as this can help to prevent blood sugar spikes, and generally has more fiber, which keeps your bowels regular. 

Fats are a higher source of energy (9 kcal/g of energy) and are most easily stored in the body as adipose tissue. There are two major types of fatty acids, saturated and unsaturated fats. The major difference lies within the chemical bond of the fatty acids. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are considered “essential” which means our body does not make these fatty acids and must be consumed through the foods we eat. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are two examples of polyunsaturated fats and can be found in salmon and trout, as well as soybean and corn oils respectively. These fats are essential for healthy cell membranes, and proper brain and nervous system function.  At lower exercise intensities, fat is the primary source of energy but as intensity increases, there is a shift to carbohydrates as the fuel source. 

General recommendations for macronutrient intake for the average adult engaging in a general fitness program is 10-35% protein, 20-35% fat, and 45-64% carbohydrates. These percentages are based on daily calorie intake. These numbers should be adjusted based on age, sport, and performance level. 

Now let’s take a look at the micronutrients. Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals that we consume. Although we need less micronutrients than macronutrients, these vitamins and minerals are vital to a healthy diet. Specifically, I want to tell you about calcium and iron in relation to exercise. First, calcium is a mineral that helps to build strong bones, teeth, and nails. It’s also necessary for nerve transmission and muscle contraction. Muscle contraction is crucial for movement to occur, and is therefore a vital component in all sporting activities.If the daily intake of calcium is inadequate for a prolonged period of time, the body begins to compensate and pulls the calcium from it’s storage place in the bones to keep levels up in the muscles and blood. The deficit within the bones has the potential to lead to a stress reaction, formerly known as a stress fracture. Some good sources of calcium include milk, yogurt, cheese, kale, and fruit juices fortified with calcium. Iron is another important mineral for global body function as it plays a role in growth and development, as well as cell function. It’s also essential for the synthesis and function of hemoglobin, which transports oxygen to muscles. Iron deficiency is more common in young females and tends to include symptoms such as weakness, fatigue, irritability, poor concentration, and headaches. A deficiency in iron can also lead to poor athletic performance, decreased exercise capacity, and fatigue. Iron can be found in animal products like red meat and poultry, as well as vegetables, whole grains, and fortified cereals. 

The colors in our foods indicate an abundance of specific nutrients, so remember to “eat the rainbow” to get a variety of vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients. 

As a physical therapist, we often discuss basic nutrition with our patients in regard to healing and sports performance as mentioned above. Please reach out to Robinet Physical Therapy if you have any questions to further discuss your sports performance or would like to set up a free 30-minute consultation with one of our qualified physical therapists.